Commissioner Potočnik hauled in Minister Deenihan and made it very clear that Ireland would indeed face an eye-watering daily fine if the turf-cutting didn’t stop, writes Tony Lowes
In the ongoing turf wars, Ming the Mendacious and his followers were struck what may be a fatal blow last month. Minister for the Environment Big Phil Hogan told his Fine Gael Councillors at a meeting in Sligo that “the bogs are gone”. No way, he explained, was Ireland going to expose itself to daily fines of €27,000. “How would the Troika like that?” Pandering to the rabble, he meant, would stop.
The Merciless One and his populist followers had been staging mass meetings across the midlands, inflaming hatred of the environment, the Government, and Brussels over the ‘bog evictions’. Behind the scenes, they have been planning ‘flash mobs’ for the cutting season next year to challenge any efforts to deny them ‘their rights’ – going as far as claiming that the protected bogs were their “Gaza Strip – we are the Palestinians”.
Ming told the TV cameras “This is the equivalent of the state saying they’re going to take your kids off you and give them to a lunatic”. His supporters cheered in the background as he concluded “They’re not getting my bog any more than they’re getting my children”.
Exposed face at Ming’s ‘closed’ Cloonchambers bog. The stick measures 2 metres. The machines eat into the ‘cake’ for ‘domestic use’ by 2 to 4 metres a year.
Michael D Higgins, who signed the Habitats Directive in 1997 elegantly side-stepped the pressure when a crowd descended on a fundraiser: ‘I retain an interest, of course, in this matter and if I was to be able to be of assistance would hope to do so; however, as you will appreciate, I have my hands full at the present time!” Nevertheless, he is reported to be absent from the hustings in Roscommon and East Galway.
But in Europe pressure to preserve a habitat ‘epitomic of the Irish landscape and rural culture’ and the Report featured in the last Village Magazine of the wide-spread devastation perpetrated in 2011 finally triggered action.
Environment Commissioner Janez Potočnik called in Kerry-born Minister Jimmy Deenihan and in an hour-long session made it very clear that Ireland would indeed face an eye-watering daily fine if the turf-cutting didn’t stop. He also made it clear that Ireland was not being singled out and that Malta – wild birds, and Sweden – wolves, were going to find themselves with daily fines unless they enforced the Habitats Directive, and controlled their citizens as well.
Minister Hogan’s Sligo pronouncement followed Potočnik’s intervention. New European Communities (Birds and Natural Habitats) Regulations were then signed into force by Minister Deenihan on 21 September. No Press Release was issued.
An outraged Ming failed to raise the new Regulations under the Dail’s Order of Business. “They can search your house”, he squealed, omitting to mention that they had to apply to the District Court for a Warrant, just as for every other Search Warrant issued in Ireland.
Fuming about ‘duplicitous behaviour’, the representatives of the Turf Cutters and Contractors Association walked out of the September meeting of the Peatlands Council, established to mediate the Turf Wars. “We were told we wouldn’t be interfered with”, they complained.
The new legislation allows An Garda Síochana, under the Minister’s direction, to enter on the bogs with “vehicles, equipment, and materials as may be appropriate for that purpose”. It also allows the Minister to apply to the Courts to issue a “restoration warrant” to require that “the owner, occupier or user of the land or the person who carried out the activity” restore the land.
More devastatingly for Mick Fitzsimons, the leading turf-cutting Contractor and their vocal spokesman, before deciding to seek a restoration warrant “the Minister shall consult with the Environmental Protection Agency regarding liabilities that may arise under the Environmental Liability Directive”.
Commercial turf cutters – even when cutting for ‘domestic’ clients – could find themselves facing large bills for restoring the protected sites they have damaged.
Meanwhile, the National Parks and Wildlife Service – which is in part to blame for the crisis because of its pusillanimous behaviour during Peatlands Council meetings – continues to drag its heels.
It is refusing to stop the damage caused by the continuing drainage of the remaining bogs by blocking the drains until ‘further studies’ are undertaken.
The nail in the coffin, however, may be the EPA’s just-released Report: ‘Boglands: Sustainable Management of peatlands in Ireland’. As a contributor on the Turf Cutters and Contractors Association Facebook page said – ‘were [sic] stuffed, if the EPA get there way all bogs not just the SAC bogs will come under the protection of the EPA’.